Daniel Dennis: Don't Doubt Spencer Lee

Daniel Dennis has seen and felt firsthand what Spencer Lee can do on a wrestling mat, so the 2016 Olympian scoffs at the notion that the Franklin Regional senior will have any problems overcoming a serious knee injury and the first loss of his high school career.

“I think the kid’s a phenom. He’s a freak of nature,” Dennis said after a Young Clinics in Johnstown earlier this month. “There’s very few people like him.”

A long road

There are few like Dennis either. A two-time Illinois state runner-up in high school, Dennis went on to Iowa, where he became a two-time All-American. He was seconds away from winning an NCAA Championship in 2010 before Jayson Ness capped an incredible comeback in the final 10 seconds for a 5-4 victory.

After his college career ended, Dennis stepped away from the sport. For a time, he lived out of his pickup truck, as he traveled across the Western United States. After he returned to the sport and made the Olympic team, his story blew up. FloWrestling made a film about him. Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports and even People magazine clamored to bring his journey to the masses.

After going 0-1 in Rio de Janeiro, Dennis is comfortably back out of the spotlight.

“One of my teammates, he makes fun of me. He says I live under a rock and calls me a hermit,” he said. “I didn’t really pay attention to most of it. I didn’t know it was in People or anything like that. I don’t get distracted by much. I’m not big into social media. I don’t keep up with most of that. It’s pretty easy for me to – I don’t want to say ignore that – but to not get caught up in it.”

For Dennis, it’s life as usual in Iowa City as he weighs whether or not he wants to continue competing.

“I don’t think I’ve changed too much other than I live in a much nicer house,” he said.

Perfect partner for Dennis

Dennis chose to take Lee, who a few months later would win a third world championship, to Brazil as his training partner. It’s not a decision that Dennis regrets in any way.

“He was, at the time, the best partner I could have brought along,” Dennis said. “I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. He’d be my No. 1 partner, probably.”

“There aren’t any Americans that give a feel like him for what Europeans feel like,” Dennis said. “He has the weird European feel and he has the tough, hard-nosed American feel, and he has everything in between.”

No excuses

The Olympian knows that Lee, an Iowa recruit, was wrestling on a torn ACL when Austin DeSanto of Exeter Township beat Lee in the PIAA finals in March. And Dennis doesn’t care.

“I’m not even giving him an excuse for wrestling with a bad knee,” Dennis said. “It didn’t matter. He went into there. He was supposed to wrestle and he did. He got outwrestled in the finals, and he owns it. He owns up to it like an adult should. He’s going to make a full recovery, and he’s going to be better than ever.”

‘Sky’s the limit’

Doubt has crept into the minds of some wrestling experts about Lee. While he’s already reached near-legendary status, his knee injury, combined with a shoulder injury that required surgery during his junior year of high school, have some wondering if his body is beginning to break down. Others wonder how he’ll fare in college, where he’ll need to add some muscle to compete against the nation’s best 125-pounders.

Dennis doesn’t see any reason to doubt The Kid.

“The sky’s the limit for him. I really believe that through and through,” Dennis said. “He could come in right now and compete with anybody. ANYBODY. Not anybody in Division I nationals, I mean anybody in the world. The kid’s good and he’s special. I’m excited to see how he does.”

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